The undisputed brilliance of Oleksandr Usyk

By defeating Tyson Fury, the Ukrainian boxer has made boxing and sporting history.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Sport World

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At nearly 3am on Sunday morning local time, a 20,000-strong crowd in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia rose to acclaim Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk. They had just seen sporting history being made in the bruised and bloodied flesh. At that moment, Usyk became boxing’s first undisputed world heavyweight champion in over 20 years. It marks the end – for now – of an incredible journey for Usyk.

In 2018, when he said he intended to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, few took him seriously. At the time, he was still fighting in the cruiserweight class, and had only just beaten British fighter Tony Bellew to become the undisputed world cruiserweight champion. His technical brilliance was undeniable. But he was known for being slightly eccentric, a good dancer and steadfastly refusing to learn too much English, preferring instead to speak it in broken form. He even became a meme for replying to questions about how he felt with the words: ‘I am feel. I am very feel.’

Usyk was certainly loved and admired by boxing fans from around the world. Yet it’s widely recognised that to come up from cruiserweight to fight in the heavyweight division is very difficult. To do so and then become the undisputed heavyweight champion is a feat that has been achieved only once before – by Evander Holyfield in the 1990s.

For Usyk to emulate Holyfield, there were considerable obstacles in his way. He had to defeat Anthony Joshua – who held the International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Organisation (WBO) and World Boxing Association (WBA) belts. He also had to defeat Deontay Wilder, who held the World Boxing Council (WBC) belt. So back then, in 2018, Usyk’s stated intention to become ‘undisputed’ heavyweight champion seemed like empty bravado.

Perceptions soon started to change. Usyk defeated Joshua twice in 2021, to take three of the four heavyweight belts. In doing so, Usyk demonstrated the supreme technical ability he had honed across an amateur career that featured an extraordinary 335 wins. He was able to exhaust Joshua, moving his head quickly to dodge incoming punches, while rapidly changing angles to land his own blows.

But there was now an added impediment thrown into the mix. Deontay Wilder had lost his heavyweight belt to Tyson Fury in a thrilling trilogy fight series that finished in 2020. Now it was the formidable Fury, rather than Wilder, who stood in the way of Usyk’s ambition.

Coming into Saturday night’s big showdown, Fury was not actually on the best of form. He had only just beaten mixed martial artist Francis Ngannou late last year on points in a fight many neutral observers thought Fury should have lost. Still, few gave Usyk much of a chance. Fury has an awkward style, fighting on the backfoot and tiring out his opponents. Weighing in at some 18 stone, he has tremendous power, as demonstrated when he knocked out Dillian Whyte in 2022, a one-time rival to Anthony Joshua.

On Saturday night, Fury looked to be back to his best. Usyk began the fight quickly and won the early rounds by landing some convincing shots. But they didn’t seem to hurt Fury. From round four onwards, Fury developed more of a rhythm and seemingly took charge of the fight. He held Usyk at bay with his outstretched lead hand, while his thunderous uppercut – the shot that had knocked out Dillian Whyte – remained a constant threat.

For much of the middle section of the contest, Usyk was being hit at range and taking punches to the body. He was slowing down and becoming an easy target for Fury’s enormous reach. Usyk may have been landing more punches than Fury, but Fury looked the more relaxed and dominant of the fighters.

Everything changed in round nine. Usyk came at Fury in a ferocious display of big hitting. By the closing stages of the round, Fury was staggering. Only the ropes kept him up off the deck. Many thought that the referee was the only thing preventing Usyk from knocking Fury out, as he stepped in shortly before the bell. Fury did try to fight back in the last three rounds. But by then, it was too late. Usyk emerged as the victor on points.

Fury has indicated that he will activate the immediate-rematch clause. This means that he and Usyk are likely to fight again in October. For now, though, it is worth enjoying the ascent of this indomitable Ukrainian to the highest peak of his sport. Usyk has upset the heavyweight division through force of will, unshakable self-belief and sheer talent.

For too long, heavyweights used to cling to their titles by refusing to fight the other big threats in the division. Usyk’s willingness and determination to fight anyone has made heavyweight boxing thrilling again.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author. His most recent book is Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, which is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Sport World


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